The insidious effects of trolling women on the TV and radio in the UK

Somehow society must come to terms with this problem and start thinking of ways to address it. It doesn't only demean the women in question, it degrades us all and cheapens the public sphere.

Lis Howell
1 August 2013

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In a week when Mishal Husain’s appointment as a presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme hit the headlines, we must ask what sort of world we live in when a new female presenter on a radio programme causes such a fuss. A representative proportion of women presenters on these programmes should be the norm.

- For the last three years students on City University’s MA programme have monitored the number of female experts or authority figures, featured on a variety of news and current affairs programmes.

- The Today programme has been measured more than most because of its initial ratio of more than 6 male experts to every female expert. It was regularly possible to listen to Today for 30 minutes without hearing any woman.

- The definition of expert in the City University measuring is loose. In these surveys, an expert is anyone speaking on a topic who is not a witness or victim, though obviously there are overlaps. But the students are instructed to err on the inclusive side so that politicians, campaign leaders, celebrities and opinion givers are classed as experts.

- But even within this very broad definition there is an average of 4 men interviewed on all TV or radio news, to every woman.

In 2011 Broadcast magazine started to use City University’s material to campaign for more women experts on TV and radio. One of the first responses from the broadcasters was: “We ask women to appear and they won’t”. This was substantiated by anecdotal survey research from 100 alumni from City who were in entry level jobs (usually as guest getters). Ten replied at length explaining that they were frequently asked to get women guests - but the women said no.

Ask any producer and she will tell you that when it comes to booking female members of the public to appear on screen or on air they often don’t want to do it. Often, they may be cowed in the workplace (“Oh, I couldn’t do that. I’d have to ask the Chairman.”) or embarrassed at being seen to be ‘putting themselves forward’. But this idea that it isn’t very feminine to want to be seen or heard is not innate to all women. What we are seeing is actually the product of the disproportionate criticism which women get for assuming authority and being authoritative in the media, where so much attention is focused on the interviewee. It is still seen as a big thing to be ‘on telly’ or ‘on the radio’. 

For some men it is going against the natural order of things for a woman to be the focus of attention because of her authority. The disgusting trend now often labelled ‘trolling’, where anonymous men verbally abuse women on twitter or by email, is possibly the more upfront version of a culture of male sneering which is endemic and which prevents older women (who have unconsciously suffered from this for longer) putting themselves forward as authority figures. Younger women face this with greater sang froid and openness. Caroline Criado-Perez, who has started the directory The Women’s Room and who leads the campaign against UK male dominated banknotes, started a twitter campaign about twitter trolling called #silentnomore, and there are now numerous blogs from women who have been ‘trolled’ in this way. There seems to be little academic research into why some men feel compelled to do this although it seems likely that it’s a power response akin to rape (one of the most frequent threats by trolls.) There is an urgent need for a study. For example, there must be males who also get these abusive emails – and although it seems to be almost entirely directed at women, surely some men too have been targeted by the jealous or vengeful? What can we learn by comparing the two different types of abuse?  

And of course there’s another element to this – everyone is entitled to free speech within the law and you can’t gag people for being rude. Those who have reported ‘trolling’ tell me that the police apparently tend towards ‘victim-blame’ where the women recipients of threats are asked not to provoke, and are advised to ‘ignore it’, although it’s clearly threatening behaviour. So when does this become a hate crime? Or should it be? In the past, these people obviously thought these things but had no chance to say them - but in the world of new technology they can actually express their violent feelings, and communicate without come-back. In December 2012 Sean Duffy was prosecuted and sentenced to community service for the latest in a series of offences involving images on Facebook. The twitter trolling is different, less easy to detect, more individually and (obviously) verbally abusive and with greyer areas. It is a nasty and complicated business, but when it tips over into personal threats, however vague, surely it is a crime proper and should be treated as such, even if detection is hard? But having said all of that, however horrible it is to tweet that Georgia May Jagger is a buck toothed whore, should it be a criminal activity?  Would criminalisation in fact be counter productive?

Part of the answer is that this needs to be talked about and publicly condemned. It is the anonymous, secretive nature of trolling, which means that it can grow like an undetected cancer, weakening us all. Women who receive this stuff feel shame and a vague sense that they are to blame for inciting it. When you get a nasty email it’s a shock, and a unique invasion of your privacy. It’s not something you want to share with your friends. And you always fear there is some truth in it. How old and ugly did I really look on TV? Did they find my voice shrieking? Am I a harridan? Who do I think I am?  It saps confidence like nothing else. And it’s anonymous so you never know who sent it. It could be that nice man next door. Or the colleague at the next desk.

And talking of that, these trolls are all people working or watching TV somewhere near you. They are not all loners like Duffy.  Society is allowing this to happen. I am most interested in what might be called low level trolling – the so called ‘banter’ which women have to put up with all the time, ranging from the unconsciously sexist remarks of John Inverdale, to the entitlement of men to pass judgement on Miriam O’Reilly’s wrinkles. Is this the same thing as trolling at another level? Or is it different?  There is no doubt that women who become prominent for any reason are subjected to criticism which would not be directed at men, for example to do with appearance or age. And most subtle and scary is the almost constant need by some men to undermine the right of women to opine about anything which isn’t a ‘women’s issue’. This has a real and practical application when you look at the content of news programmes, where the City University London surveys show that women experts appear much less on programmes which feature business, politics and international news. Women are acceptable talking about health and human interest, subjects which touch on ‘caring’ but not about diplomacy and dollars, subjects which are really about power. The one programme which bucks this trend is Channel Four News which shows it can be done. They consistently reach the three to one male to female ratio the Expert Women campaign strove for, despite a business and politics agenda.

I did ask a friend why he thought some men sneered at women. “It’s simple,” he replied.“If you write off all the women you get rid of 50%of the competition.”  While this was obvious it also showed the extent of the problem. Some perfectly normal and ordinary men denigrate women as a group, just to try and improve their own odds of success. They do this unconsciously, thinking that it’s playful or just teasing, when in fact it’s nasty, damaging and excluding. It may not be full blown trolling but one thing leads to another and a society which lets women be demeaned for fun, every day, will allow the serious misogynists to flourish. If you are in doubt about the distressing effect of abuse of women who have put their heads above the parapet, read the following blogs.

This issue is certainly deserving of more analysis. But in the meantime, thinking people need to consider how to deal with something which is undermining us all. I would urge men not to be drawn in to some of the office banter, which is just a code for woman-baiting. And I would urge women not to be ‘good sports’, caving in guiltily when accused of ‘having no sense of humour.’ Mocking other women isn’t funny. Most important, get on the TV and radio and be like them!

There is no natural reason why a woman who knows her stuff would not want to appear on a television or radio programme to talk about it. She will talk about it in the classroom or on courses or in presentations to colleagues. So why not on the air or on the box? The answer may well be the sniping. This is seen at its worst incarnation in the internet or twitter troll, the man who thinks any woman in the public eye is fair game for some really nasty power play of the most basic and gross sort. But it spreads throughout society at all levels, from the tasteless jokes and the snide remarks to the deep woman hating. Tackling trolling starts with the office bully and we are all involved. If women are intimidated, at any level, to the extent that it inhibits their ability to be the authority figures they are by nature, the sickos behind their secret screens have won.

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